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Ravenscraig Castle

Artillery Fortification (15th Century), Castle (Medieval)

Site Name Ravenscraig Castle

Classification Artillery Fortification (15th Century), Castle (Medieval)

Alternative Name(s) Ravensheugh Castle

Canmore ID 52902

Site Number NT29SE 11

NGR NT 29068 92489

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number AC0000807262. All rights reserved.
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Administrative Areas

  • Council Fife
  • Parish Kirkcaldy And Dysart
  • Former Region Fife
  • Former District Kirkcaldy
  • Former County Fife

Archaeology Notes

NT29SE 11 29068 92489

(NT 2907 9249) Castle (NR) (In Ruins)

OS 6" map (1938)

Ravenscraig Castle, founded in AD 1460 by James II, is an imposing ruin on a rocky promontory. It is remarkable both for the beauty of its ashlar masonry and also because it is perhaps the first British castle to be systematically designed for defence by firearms and against cannon fire.

D MacGibbon and T Ross 1887; RCAHMS 1933; W D Simpson 1938; V G Childe and W D Simpson 1961

The remains of this massive, strongly built castle are neglected and covered with vegetation; but the walls are in a fair state of preservation. The outbuildings in the south are in poor, fragmentary condition. The ditch against the north wall is partly filled in.

Visited by OS (JLD) 4 October 1954

Site recorded by Maritime Fife during the Coastal Assessment Survey for Historic Scotland, Kincardine to Fife Ness 1996

Architecture Notes

NT29SE 11 29068 92489


Scottish Country Life. August 1929, p.237.

Photograph: 'Ravenscraig Castle, Kirkcaldy which, along with the surrounding 85 acres of Dysart grounds has been presented to the town of Kirkcaldy for a public park...The park was opened on 29th June...Ravenscraig was built by James I in 1463'.

Information from Architecture Catalogue slip:

Guardianship Monument.


Field Visit (12 May 1925)

Ravenscraig Castle.

This castle, which was begun in 1460, occupies a very bold and exposed site. The rocky promontory on which it stands juts out into Kirkcaldy Bay, rising sheer on the western side to a maximum height of some 80 feet above the sands, and falling to the eastern shore in a series of steep terraces. At the seaward end ascent has originally been possible, though difficult, and accordingly at certain places the upper part of the rock has been scarped to a perpendicular face, to prevent access. The site is considerably lower than the ground to landward, from which it has been separated on the eastern side by a gully. From the point where this natural defence ends, a ditch, which is cut through the emerging rock as it nears the western flank, has been carried right across. It has been spanned by a permanent bridge, supported on a segment of rock left for the purpose in front of the entrance. At sometime or other a low outbuilding, possibly a stable, was built in front of the castle, partly on this platform of rock.

The lay-out of the castle has been adapted to its site, the principal buildings being placed along the landward base of the promontory and the domestic offices etc. disposed along its eastern side and outer end. On the western side was a wall completing the enclosure of the courtyard. The front forms an oblong block flanked by semi-circular terminal towers. Owing to irregularities of the surface, the towers are founded at different levels. The western one is the higher, but the two were probably intended to be roughly similar, for it is obvious that the castle has not been completed to the original design. This tower is set back from the cliff edge and has been built as a unit, although there is nothing to suggest that it is either earlier or later than the other, and the original work on it seems to have stopped at the wall-head, leaving everything above that to be completed in the 16th or 17th century. The main block and the eastern tower have been begun together and carried up one storey above the general level of the site, where a temporary roof was inserted in the tower pending its completion. After a considerable interval, operations were resumed, and the front wall of the main block was raised in a slightly thinner wall to the height originally intended, merely, how-ever, to serve as a screen, for the other walls of the main block do not seem to have been raised. Some time in the 17th century, the eastern tower was completed with a parapet and walk at a lower height than the wall-head of the front wall of the main block.

On the east side the buildings dip low and are accommodated to the varying levels of the site, an adaptation which involved so much under-building that at a later date, when that side came to be continued, the buildings were placed farther inwards on the rock.

The stone employed has been partly quarried on the site and partly obtained from the neighbouring cliffs, the western tower being a hard greyish freestone, which has withstood the weather much better than the lighter-coloured material used for the rest of the building. The masonry of the main buildings is ashlar in 13-inch courses, mainly cubical, and little difference can be seen between the original and the later masonry. The walls of the towers are unusually thick, while those of the courtyard are thin and of rubble. On the front of the main block and also on the towers are two splayed intake-courses, all at different levels. The principal entrance, which has a semi-circular head, heavily chamfered like the jambs, is in the centre. There has been no drawbridge and no portcullis. On either side of the entrance are narrow lights, keyhole-shaped, and there are similar lights in the towers and in the lower part of the west wall of the courtyard. The original masonry of the front stops four courses above the head of the entrance; the upper part of the front contains embrasures for small guns; the wall-head has had no parapet but terminates in a cavettoed cornice borne on corbels. From where this wall-head abuts on the west tower, the tower wall is set very slightly inward, change the reason for which is not clear. The wall-head of the west tower is tabled for protection from the weather, the superstructures rising on the inner face of the walls. The windows of this tower to west and south are fairly large and are chamfered on jambs and lintels; there are, of course, no windows to the east, as this side would have been covered by the main block, had it been completed.

At the entrance to the castle are two doors, the outer of which has a bar-hole. These open into a barrel-vaulted transe or arched passage, on the east side of which, just within, is porter's room, a vaulted chamber with fireplace and cupboard. Directly ahead the courtyard is approached through an arched doorway with semicircular head and a single door. Within the courtyard on either side the doorway is the entrance to a vaulted storehouse. In its eastern corner is the entrance to the east tower, a vaulted passage, off which straight stair descends on the right to the lower part, comprising two storeys below the court-yard level. The higher of these is a single chamber, which has had a fireplace in the north gable, windows looking east, set in deep embrasures furnished with seats, and a garderobe at the south-east corner. The lower storey is a vaulted cellar containing the well, which has been cut through the rock and is now filled in. At the inner end of the vaulted passage, one doorway gives access to the second floor, and another to a turnpike rising to the third floor and parapet walk, both constructed in the 17th century.

The upper part of the frontal block, between the towers, has been entered from the same turnpike and is a mere platform, but, if the original intention had been realised, this would have been a suitable position for the Hall. The embrasures in which the gun-loops are set are widely splayed and have each a little aumbry on one side, while in the breasts provision is made for a gun-mounting, as on the fore-building of Dunnottar Castle, Kincardine.

The west tower is four storeys and an attic in height. The entrance lies within a little courtyard, formed apparently to screen the latrines, when these, about the 17th century, were placed at the north-west angle of the courtyard. The ground floor opens directly off the courtyard, and is a single chamber covered with a barrel-vault. To east and west are narrow lights, reduced in size some years ago, when the apartment was used as an ammunition store. The main entrance to the tower, which is on the first floor, is reached from a forestair, at one time roofed but now ruinous. It opens on the foot of a turnpike, situated in the south east corner, which gives direct access to all the upper floors. Each floor contains a single chamber lit from south and west, the windows having deep embrasures provided with seats. In the thick walls to north and east are mural chambers, and on each floor there are garderobes at the south-west corner. The fireplaces, which are large but unusually plain, are either in the north or in the east wall.

The fragments of detached buildings at the seaward end of the courtyard represent the kitchens and other offices.

HISTORICAL NOTE. - Ravenscraig or Ravensheugh Castle was built originally for Mary of Gueldres, the Queen of James II. The lands including the site were acquired by the Queen in March 1460, their original possessors receiving an equivalent in lands belonging to her elsewhere (1). The master of works for the building was David Boys and to him or his assistant, a chaplain named Robert Spanky, sums amounting to £600 are recorded to have been paid (2). Fourteen great timbers called "geistis" (joists) were supplied for the building from the woods on the banks of Allan Water (3). In 1461 the structure was sufficiently advanced to accommodate the Queen's Steward and other servants, who stayed there for 25 days (4). Queen Mary died on 1 December 1463, and seven years later (12 September 1470) King James III granted the castle with the neighbouring lands to William, Earl of Caithness and Lord St. Clair, in partial recompense for the castle of Kirkwall and the earldom of Orkney (5).

RCAHMS 1933, visited 12 May 1925.

(1) Reg. Mag. Sig., s.a., Nos. 746, 747. (2) Exchequer Rolls, vii, pp. 59, 77, &c. (3) Ibid., pp. 59, 63. (4) Ibid., pp. 78, 82. (5) Reg. Mag. Sig., s.a., No. 996.

Cf. also Cast. and Dom. Arch., i, p. 538.

Aerial Photography (1966)

Oblique aerial photographs of Ravenscraig Castle and the surrounding area of Kirkcaldy, Fife, photographed by John Dewar in 1966.

Publication Account (1987)

Ravenscraig occupies a dramatic cliff-top site on the north shore of the Firth of Forth. From the A 92 Kirkcaldy-Dundee road the castle has the appearance of a somewhat unorthodox tower-house but when viewed from the land to the east or from the beach to the south the true scale and form of the building can be appreciated.

Built as a royal castle for Mary of Gueldres, Queen to James II, the castle was designed by the Royal Master Mason, Henry Merlzioun, assisted by Friar Andrew Lesouris as master carpenter. Work was begun in 1460 and continued despite the death of the king the same year. The work on the main defences, comprising two round-towers linked by a range containing the entrance gate, continued until the death of Mary of Gueldres in December 1463. Although the two towers are of similar plan and height, the nature of the landform gives prominence to the west tower. The massive wall thickness, regularly placed shot-holes and deep rock-cut ditch show Ravenscraig to be one of the earliest castles to attempt to provide for defence by and from artillery.

In 1470, James III granted the castle to William, Lord Sinclair, in exchange for the lands of the Earldom of Orkney. The building work at Ravenscraig was temporarily abandoned to be completed to a modified plan in the 16th century. The Sinclairs occupied the building on a regular basis until the 17th century, when it probably declined in favour, although the building remained in their possession until 1896.

Information from ‘Exploring Scotland’s Heritage: Fife and Tayside’, (1987).

Publication Account (1995)

Outwith the boundaries of medieval Kirkcaldy, and with stronger links with Dysart, the castle still had a significant impact on Kirkcaldy. Built on a promontory, jutting eighty feet high above Kirkcaldy Bay, with a sheer face to the west and a more irregular shelving to the east, the castle stands in a seemingly impregnable position from the sea. During the fifteenth century the crown was showing increasing concern for littoral defence, both against piracy and English aggression. In 1460, therefore, James II commenced the building of the castle, in such a situation that it could command the upper reaches of the Forth and protect the important port of Dysart, and also, in the event, the small harbour of Kirkcaldy. Work continued after the death of the king that year, with the intention that the castle should be completed as a dower house for his widow, Mary of Gueldres. Whether this was achieved is doubtful, much further work being done for the Sinclair family in the sixteenth century. The main accommodation was provided in two towers flanking the base of the triangular promontory, supported by ancillary buildings, with a third tower at the end of the promontory.

The architecture of the standing remains of the castle reveals the response to the threat of bombardment from the sea: the walls of the towers are between 3.3 and 4.4 min thickness. Gun loops and a gun platform, protected by a curtain wall between the two towers, are an engineering reaction to the threat posed by the new artillery. Ravenscraig Castle may be the first castle in Scotland specifically designed for firearm defence.

Not only did Kirkcaldy benefit from a measure of protection and coastal defence afforded by the nearby castle, but as late medieval castles also served administrative and political purposes, Kirkcaldy was drawn into national events merely by being in the castle's locality. Ravenscraig Castle was the home of Mary of Gueldres until her death in 1463, and although it passed out of royal hands to the Sinclairs in 14 70, several royal visitors passed through Kirkcaldy.James V, for example, sailed from Kirkcaldy in 1536 to bring his French wife back to Scotland; a royal charter was issued from Ravenscraig in April 1540; andjames VI lodged at the castle in 1598. In due course the castle was deserted, but why or when is not clear. The last chapter in its history was an ignominious one; it probably functioned as quarters for troops during the Cromwellian occupation of Fife in 1651.

Information from ‘Historic Kirkcaldy: The Archaeological Implications of Development’ (1995).

Watching Brief (7 September 2011)

NT 2908 9252 and NT 2906 9245 A watching brief was carried out on 7 September 2011 during the excavation of two small trenches in advance of the installation of new signs at Ravenscraig Castle. The first trench was located outside the castle to the N, adjacent to the path approaching the site from the NE (NT 2908 9252), while the second was in the courtyard to the S of the castle (NT 2096 9245). The only noteworthy deposits were seen in the second trench, where the upper surface of a rubble deposit was revealed. The mortar noted on some of the stones indicated that this represented structural debris. The probable wall line to the W and the ruined range of buildings to the E are likely sources for this material. The material from this trench has demonstrated the potential for archaeological deposits to survive within the castle’s courtyard.

Archive: RCAHMS (intended)

Funder: Historic Scotland

Kirkdale Archaeology, 2011

Information also reported in Oasis (kirkdale1-120886)

Watching Brief (13 March 2012 - 17 March 2012)

NT 2905 9248 A watching brief was carried out 13 March – 17 July 2012 at Ravenscraig Castle. A ledge running along the top of the cliff adjoining the W side of the W tower may be accessed from the ditch to its N by a series of crude rock-cut steps, and is further defined by a low wall on its W side and a more substantial one along its S end. The aim of the work was to investigate the archaeological deposits on this ledge, and assess the possibility of inserting a barrier along the cliff edge.

There was little in the way of significant archaeological features, with most of the area covered by very shallow deposits. However, footings were seen projecting up to 0.45m E of the main line of the W wall. Surface traces indicated that these broad footings continued to the N out of the excavated area, while no further part of this feature was visible to the S.

Gordon Ewart 2012

Funder: Historic Scotland

Kirkdale Archaeology

OASIS ID: kirkdale1-310876

Watching Brief (1 March 2019 - 31 March 2019)

NT 29051 92499 An archaeological watching brief was carried out by CFA Archaeology Ltd during ground-works for a replacement wooden staircase within a rock-cut ditch at Ravenscraig Castle (SM 90244), Kirkcaldy. No features, deposits or artefacts of archaeological significance were identified.

Information from OASIS ID: cfaarcha1-356655 (Kirby M) 2019.

Archive: NRHE (intended). Reports: Fife Council

Funder: Historic Environment Scotland

Magnus Kirby - CFA Archaeology Ltd

(Source: DES Vol 20)


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